In My Opinion

Fabiola Santiago: Dalliance with Cuba a bad deal for Key West

The idea of quaint, historical Key West becoming best buddies with the dictator next door is repulsive.

Talk about a political hot potato.

A lot is at stake in the misguided dalliance of Key West politicians with high-ranking diplomatic representatives of the repressive Cuban regime.

We’re not talking about fisherman-to-fisherman contact here, but about the Castros’ goons coming to play in Key West.

The city can’t engage in cocktail party pleasantries and hypocritical wreath-laying ceremonies with officials whose government brutally beats up and detains peaceful women and dissidents — and get away with its paradisiacal image intact.

So it’s a good thing that the Key West City Commission’s short-sighted dive into heavyweight foreign relations — voting to host the head of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington D.C. and the diplomatic mission’s first secretary and stage a flurry of events in their “honor” — was aborted this week.

It might have all gone ahead if Commissioner Tony “Fat” Yaniz had not demanded a reception be held honoring the diplomats at the San Carlos Institute, a historic Duval Street building where Jose Martí spoke on behalf of independence from Spain in the 1800s, and that, technically, belongs to the Cuban government.

The decaying building was rescued in 1985 by Miami lawyer Rafael Peñalver, who fought for legal stewardship and won. With the help of a volunteer board culled from the Keys and Miami communities, Peñalver restored the gorgeous space, and for 20 some years, the San Carlos has been operating as a lively cultural center, hosting among other educational activities the Key West Literary Festival.

Not that it has been a smooth project. Pro-Cuban government activists have tried to take over the San Carlos post-restoration. One of the exiles who fought off a rowdy crowd, Armando Alejandre Jr., ended up being one of the Brothers to the Rescue men shot down and killed by Cuban government fighter jets while flying over international waters.

So imagine the consternation Yaniz — with the backing of Democratic Congressman Joe Garcia — caused when he asked that the red carpet be rolled out at the San Carlos for the Cuban diplomats.

Peñalver told Yaniz he couldn’t keep anyone from visiting the San Carlos, but the diplomats were sure to be received as personae non grata. When that didn’t sway Yaniz, the San Carlos board penned and distributed a lengthy open letter to the Key West community that eloquently expressed why it’s so morally wrong, not to mention bad business, for the Keys to befriend oppressors.

“It is shameful that anyone in the Key West business community would extend a welcome mat or shake the bloody hands of Castro’s representatives,” the letter says. Their uproar nixed the plans — this time.

Yaniz reacted by talking tough — not to the oppressors he’s courting but to the regime’s victims: Cuban-Americans.

“Cold War dinosaurs,” he called us.

Some of us, however, would rather be a dinosaur than a weasel.

Getting in bed with an aging dictatorship when its bravest citizens are fighting for change is the last thing a storied place like Key West needs.

People drive to Mile Marker 0 to get away from it all. People flock to the San Carlos to revel in history and heritage. The humblest of people have arrived in these shores seeking refuge.

How unwise it is for Key West to pick a fight with friends, to replace the Jimmy Buffett vibe with Raúl Castro’s ugly fare.

There goes laid-back, high-occupancy Margaritaville. There goes the nibbling-on-key-lime-pie charm, the strumming the six-string persona the world knows and loves.

All for the sake of the narrow business interests of people who think they can profit from cosmetic changes in Cuba they perceive as a lasting opening.

“An open Cuba is not a free Cuba,” Peñalver told me Tuesday.

So true.

In the opportunistic alliance with today’s Cuba, Key West has a lot to lose.

Read more Fabiola Santiago stories from the Miami Herald

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